The Pathos of Politics (45) Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

The downfall and death of societies are due to the power of accumulation possessed by property. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a libertarian socialist, as contrasted to the authoritarian Karl Marx. Proudhon was the first person to declare himself an anarchist and was one of anarchy’s most influential theorists.

All men are equal and free: society by nature, and destination, is therefore autonomous and ungovernable. If the sphere of activity of each citizen is determined by the natural division of work and by the choice he makes of a profession, if the social functions are combined in such a way as to produce a harmonious effect, order results from the free activity of all men; there is no government. Whoever puts a hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Anarchy is generally considered a societal dynamic of not recognizing authority: basically, being leaderless. Proudhon used the term, but what he meant by it was anarchism: a stateless society comprised of voluntary associations; in essence, cooperative communities without an overarching nation-state.

Proudhon channeled Godwin in a more sophisticated form, without the irrational contempt for cooperation.

To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon is best known for his tart riposte “property is theft,” but that was something of an overstatement. (Despite the long-winded quote above, Proudhon had a predilection for pithy catchphrases.) Proudhon’s condemnation of property was specific to exploitation.

The possessions of the rich are stolen property. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon believed that people should possess the fruits of their labors. His criticism of communism was that it destroyed freedom by taking away control of production from individuals.

Communism is inequality, but not as property is. Property is exploitation of the weak by the strong. Communism is exploitation of the strong by the weak. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon’s take on representative democracy was a knowing echo of Plato: that democracy was a slippery slope to tyranny.

All parties without exception, when they seek for power, are varieties of absolutism. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

France was reactionary in the 1840s; the wrong time to be rabble-rousing. Proudhon was put in the dock in 1842 for his radical publications. He escaped conviction only because the jury could not understand his arguments, and therefore could not condemn them or him.

Though Proudhon sympathized with the goals that provoked insurrections in France during his life, he was a devout pacifist, rejecting violence as a means to any end.